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Silence in Any Language

Five international filmmakers take different approaches to remembering the Holocaust

by Tom Tugend

April 11, 2002 | 8:00 pm

(Back row, from left) James Moll, producer; Pavel Chukhraj, Russia; Luis Puenzo, Argentina; Steven Spielberg, executive producer. (Front row, from left) Vojtech Jasny, Czech Republic; Janos Szasz, Hungary; Andrzej Wajda, Poland. Photo Courtesy of The Shoah Foundation

(Back row, from left) James Moll, producer; Pavel Chukhraj, Russia; Luis Puenzo, Argentina; Steven Spielberg, executive producer. (Front row, from left) Vojtech Jasny, Czech Republic; Janos Szasz, Hungary; Andrzej Wajda, Poland. Photo Courtesy of The Shoah Foundation

The Holocaust, as seen through the eyes of five international filmmakers, will air on successive evenings on Cinemax, from April 15-19, at 7 p.m.

Collectively titled "Broken Silence," the series, produced by James Moll (who won an Oscar for the documentary, "The Last Days"), consists of one-hour documentaries from Hungary, Argentina, Russia, Czech Republic and Poland, each in its native language with English subtitles.

The series is one more spinoff from the prodigious work of Steven Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation in videotaping the testimonies of more than 50,000 survivors in 57 countries and 32 languages.

While the massive testimonies are still being catalogued, the Shoah Foundation has already culled its archives to produce three prize-winning documentaries and two educational CDs.

Cinemax made tapes of three of the five films available for previews, of which the most impressive is the Hungarian entry, "Eyes of the Holocaust," by director Janos Szasz.

Szasz, the son of two Holocaust survivors, focuses on the experiences of child survivors and dedicates the film "to the 1.5 million children who perished, and for those who survived and had children of their own."

As in the other films, the actual survivor testimonies form the backbone of the documentary, but Szasz interweaves some devices that might have been jarring in a filmmaker of less artistic sensitivity.

One such device is to have a young girl read out the dictionary definition of each topic, such as "anti-Semitism," "ghetto" and "deportation," which is then graphically illustrated by archival footage.

In keeping with the emphasis on children, Szasz occasionally relives the stark footage by introducing their drawings, as well as puppets and toy trains, on their way to Auschwitz.

Throughout, there are the haunting eyes of children, tearful and bewildered as they are separated from their parents, huge in the gaunt faces of death camp survivors.

The one-time child survivors, now old, remember well: the gleeful laughter of their gentile neighbors as the Jews march to the deportation trains; concentration camp life in which "there was no space for solidarity, everyone had to trample on the others," and the sad conclusion, "God was not there in Auschwitz."

Los Angeles-based Andy Vajna ("Rambo" and "Total Recall") served as the documentary's executive producer.

Russia's "Children From the Abyss" also concentrates on the younger victims of the Holocaust, with director Pavel Chukhraj largely letting the horrifying facts and reminiscences speak for themselves. Leafing through old family photo albums, Chukhraj creates a picture of pre-war Jewish life in the Soviet Union, which seems a touch too idyllic.

Curious, in the light of Stalin's subsequent paranoid anti-Semitism, is the faith of some death camp inmates that "If Stalin knew what was happening here, he would save us."

Another delusion by some as the deportation trains rolled onward was that "We are being sent to Palestine -- it's warm there."

Most gut-wrenching are the recollections of the child survivors of Babi Yar, where 150,000 Kiev Jews were slaughtered, and the sadistic brutality of the Ukraine police, which exceeded even their German masters.

The Czech Republic's "Hell on Earth" was directed by Vojtech Jasny, who fought the Nazis as a partisan after his father was murdered in Auschwitz.

He focuses on the sad history within his country's borders: Hitler's rapturous reception by the Sudeten Germans in 1939, then the occupation of Prague and, after the war's beginning, establishment of the "model" concentration camp at Theresienstadt.

In Czechoslovakia, as in Austria, the anti-Semitic laws that took years to evolve in Germany, were imposed full-blown and immediately on Czech Jews.

As throughout conquered Europe, most Czech Jews ended up in Auschwitz, and the graphic details of the survivors' recollections bear out their insistence that "It is impossible to share our experiences, they can't be captured."

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